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Be Bold: restructuring TEC part 2

Be Bold: restructuring TEC part 2

by George Clifford

PART 2/3 (see part 1 here)

This essay’s first part explored five factors that bode ill for TEC’s future: our legacy of small congregations in the wrong places; a growing preference for large congregations; the increasing number of spiritual but not religious individuals; biblical illiteracy; and a diminishing proclivity to make music, preferring to listen to the music of others. Denominational restructuring, regardless of its nature, does not address these issues.

Two complementary trends powerfully influence the future of TEC because those trends set the context for denominational life and ministry. People are increasingly apathetic to hierarchy and disengaging from traditional forms of organized community.

The non-hierarchical trend is easily visible in business. Corporations are flattening their organizational charts, eliminating management layers by trying to become more nimble and responsive to both employees and consumers. This non-hierarchical trend differs sharply from anti-hierarchical Protestant Reformers who rejected bishops for biblical and theological reasons. Now many of the people in our pews, who often perceive that neither they nor their congregation receive much value from the diocese or national Church, want to know why they should support diocesan and national structures with their money and efforts. Dioceses and national structures that want to thrive must now convince members of the benefit that the whole Church receives because the dioceses and national structure exist. Restructuring, by itself, cannot do that.

Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2000) exhaustively documented the decline of traditional expressions of organized community in America. He summarized data that traced the decline in civic, fraternal, and religious organizations. Restructuring may helpfully reduce organizational overhead in TEC dioceses and the national Church (that the Taskforce for Re-Imagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) survey showed Episcopalians desire) but cannot reverse the larger social trend.

Although recommendations such as reducing the number of diocesan deputies to General Convention from eight to six advantageously cut overhead costs, the recommendation disadvantageously narrows the number of people personally invested in TEC’s national organization. This unintentionally exacerbates rather than ameliorates the underlying social trend of organizational disenchantment and disengagement, probably accelerating institutional decline. The critical issue is not the good of ensuring adequate and diverse representation, but the deeper existential issue of commitment to the organization. TREC should focus its restructuring proposals around function rather than organization. Why does TEC need 10 – or even 7 – days to conduct legislative proceedings? Are decisions that TEC needs to make better made representationally (the status quo) or through direct democracy, harnessing the power of the internet so potentially hundreds of thousands of Episcopalians vote instead of only a couple of thousand?

How can Episcopalians and TEC reverse the apparently inexorable downward trends? The trends are negative, notwithstanding a recent scattering of positive signs, signs for which we should give thanks without thinking our problems solved. TEC can take four positive steps toward a more vibrant, positive future, two discussed here, and two in the third and final installment of this post.

(1) We need to focus our attention, efforts, and resources on congregations located in places where numerical growth is happening or seems reasonably probable. TREC, in its December 2013 letter to the Church, suggested that spiritually vibrant and mission focused congregations comprise perhaps only 30% of all TEC congregations. Arguably, diocesan and national staffs can make the greatest progress toward realizing the kingdom of heaven on earth by concentrating their efforts on these congregations. Seminaries, in addition to the spiritual formation, academic preparation, and practical equipping of students for ordained ministry, should research and teach the sociological, psychological, and organizational dynamics conducive to growing spiritual alive missional communities.

Concurrently, we need to make difficult decisions about the resources – money, time, and energy – that we are willing to expend on small congregations and on congregations with poor prospects for growth. Included in the substantial but generally uncalculated and therefore ignored costs that these thousands of congregations impose on TEC are the costs of regular episcopal visits, programmatic and monetary support, assistance with clergy transitions, and educating and ordaining thousands of priests and deacons. Resources used on these efforts entail opportunity costs, e.g., a bishop visiting a small congregation has not done something else. Congregants who, if the small congregation did not exist, would have joined a thriving congregation also represent an opportunity cost, depriving the larger congregation of the benefit of their presence and gifts.

The choice about support for small congregations, although emotionally charged, is not the same choice that the shepherd faced when one sheep wandered off from the other 99 (Mt 18:10-14). In some remote areas, the TEC congregation may be the only Christian congregation and thus merit ongoing support. In other places, however, people can easily drive a few more miles to reach another TEC congregation. Elsewhere, the TEC congregation might unite with an Evangelical Lutheran congregation, find creative ways to share resources with other religious congregations or non-profits, etc. The choice is not whether to serve the one (i.e., those Episcopalians in small congregations) but how best to serve them. An unexamined, blind commitment to all congregations, regardless of size or prospects, characterizes a poor steward. We have an obligation to God and to one another to use our time and resources as effectively and efficiently for God’s purposes as possible. Buildings and other resources should be means to an end, not our raison d’être.

The ordination process, canonically standardized, has considerable variation in practice. Dioceses utilize the General Ordination Exams in a wide range of ways. Some of our seminaries are struggling financially, exploring new ways to be relevant, or developing online degree programs. Some dioceses are establishing alternatives to residential seminary programs for preparing new priests. Leaders in theses dioceses regard seminary degrees as unaffordable for clergy whom the diocese hopes will serve congregations unable to afford a full-time stipendiary priest. Leaders in these dioceses also recognize that both increasing numbers of postulants for holy orders have an employed partner unwilling to relocate for three years and ordinands, after graduating from seminary, may receive a call to a different geographic area. Some dioceses also have unique issues, e.g., Hawaii has had difficulty retaining mainland clergy for more than a couple of years because emergent family obligations make relocating to the mainland desirable for many.

How should TEC form and educate new clergy? Which small congregations merit our continued support? Which ones should we target for closure, consolidation, or another form of realignment? These questions are like the proverbial 800-pound gorillas in our midst that we are desperately trying to ignoring, but that obstinately refuse to disappear. Not seeking honest answers to these tough questions can only accelerate TEC’s demise.

(2) We need to reexamine our ecclesiology. Why are bishops important? I know the answer in the Book of Common Prayer, but that answer is insufficient. What do we really want – need – bishops to do? If the answer is to be a visible sign of the Church’s unity, then one bishop might be best, representing an unmistakable unity. If the answer is to teach the faith, then we need sufficient bishops to teach regular assemblies of the faithful. If the answer is to administer confirmation, then we need the number of bishops required to administer confirmation annually in large parishes and for regional gatherings of small congregations. None of these answers presumes the geographically contiguous dioceses defined by the borders of political jurisdictions. Are there other important tasks for bishops to perform or roles for them to fill? Once clear on what we expect bishops to do, then determining the number of bishops required becomes relatively easy.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.


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David O'Rourke

I will offer a few thoughts in one comment.

Regarding the issue of church buildings, going forward, the church should look at this as more of a business decision and consider renting or leasing properties rather than purchasing land and buildings. This way congregations can be in a better position to move when the demographics of their neighborhood changes. Think of how businesses lease their properties so that they can close down facilities that are no longer profitable. In the church model, when a congregation needs to downsize or move, then it is easier to move on from leased or rented property and facilities. Of course this means that congregations will be less likely to have the custom designed buildings they desire.

Regarding preparation for ordination, the church certainly needs to be more flexible in what kind of education and formation it expects for priests. Connected to that, the church needs to be ready to evolve in what it will expect from it’s priests. If full-time priests will be less and less the norm, then the expectations that congregations have for their priests who will be juggling two careers needs to change as well. One benefit of this may very well be more ownership of the church by the laity.

Gregory Orloff

Why are bishops important?

Because (forgive me for being a bit tongue-in-cheek) you belong, Presbyter George, to the Episcopal Church, and there’s no “Episcopal” without “episcopi” (bishops) — in fact, you became a presbyter at the hands of one!

I don’t find anything insufficient or unclear in what the Book of Common Prayer has to say about what purpose bishops serve:

“A bishop in God’s holy Church is called to be one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and interpreting the Gospel, and to testify to Christ’s sovereignty as Lord of lords and Kings of kings.”

“You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church; to celebrate and to provide for the administration of the sacraments of the New Covenant; to ordain priests and deacons and to join in ordaining bishops; and to be in all things a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the entire flock of Christ.”

In short, bishops serve to safeguard unity and continuity in the Church.

Really now… In discussing church renewal, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water while ogling the dubious “success” of the made-up megachurch neighbor down the street. Let’s look at their retention and attrition rates before claiming “bigger is better,” as well as the fruits they bear — some pretty ugly politics and social attitudes are coming out of some of them, and others seem more driven by cult of personality than focus on Christ Jesus.

Shopping mall marketing, football stadium pep rallies and slick entertainment are no substitute for a genuine Christianity that fosters real “metanoia” (repentance as change of mind) and transfiguration.

Let’s start not with what we think “the masses” or “target markets” want, but with what Christ Jesus gave us — the gospel, baptism and the eucharist — and go from there.

The Episcopal Church has more going for it in its liturgy, spirituality and conscience than many Episcopalians are willing to admit. Do it well, live it with integrity, and people will notice. (The early Church managed to overtake the pagan Roman Empire without open worship, much less open communion — personal transfiguration and moral attractiveness did the evangelizing.)

I know: it’s what’s kept me coming back to my local Episcopal church four years after I first visited it. I’d hate to lose that if we go chasing after, in mimicry of others, an chimerical “next best thing.”

Robin Margolis

This series of essays by Rev. Clifford is very interesting. I look forward to Part III. So far, I’ve read some good suggestions, as well as suggestions I disagree with.

Regarding Bishop Wes Frensdorff ‘s poem — parts of it sounded good — some of its suggestions were valuable — but I felt uncomfortable with “sacraments, free from captivity by a professional elite” and “no clerical status” — I can’t speak for everyone else, but I’ve been favorably impressed by my parish’s priests.

I also found value in Briony’s post about “remember our Anglican traditions and the fact that they have lasted so long and not be in such a hurry to change into some watered down mega church. ”

I recently saw a video covering one of the Anglican breakaway groups — I’m TEC myself and happy here — but I’m not adverse to learning from groups I have ideological disagreements with —

And they reported that they are receiving young people who have never been Episcopalians and Anglicans — they are college students coming from mega church, praise band type upbringings, have tired of that, and find a formal liturgy and the Anglican vibe a welcome change.

I listened to the interviews with some of those students, and they expressed pleasure with a set liturgy and seemed comfortable with a hierarchical church.

So some of the Anglican breakaway groups are trying to plant churches near college campuses to appeal to this segment.

The students seemed more politically conservative than many TEC people, but I have seen similar comments on blogs by young TEC people.

There is nothing preventing us from reaching out to similar populations.

Finally, while its good we are thinking about needed changes, we need to consider that Anglican churches have had similar downturns in the past.

After the American Revolutionary War, the U.S. Episcopal Church almost disappeared because lots of its members and clergy were Loyalists and had to flee the country.

Let’s say that being thought of as the traitors church wasn’t good for the fledgling TEC’s image.

It didn’t help matters that our first presiding bishop was one of the Loyalists (but had managed to resist efforts to drive him out of the U.S.).

Plus being “disestablished” (no longer the government-supported church) in states like Virginia caused many churches to literally collapse. As in abandoned buildings, covered with vines, returning to the soil.

Chief Justice John Marshall — the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court — predicted in that era that the U.S. Episcopal Church would soon disappear. He turned out to be wrong.

And the Church of England in the mother country wasn’t doing well in that era, despite having the whole power of the Crown behind it — if I remember correctly, only 6 people took Holy Communion (as it then was called) on Easter Sunday in 1810 at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Six!

Now, in that era people rarely took the sacraments, and let’s hope that those six people weren’t alone in the cathedral — perhaps there was a congregation that sat there but didn’t participate. But only 6 people taking the sacraments on Easter at one of England’s most prominent cathedrals?

And the Church of England had other problems in the 18th century — it was doing so badly that atheist clubs began meeting all over England to discuss what they would do to replace the church once it disappeared.

I’ve been reading Church of England sermons from 1660 – 1800, and they are filled with complaints about growing numbers of scientifically-minded atheists cutting into belief and church attendance — especially among the upper classes and the poor — apparently only the middle class went to church much —

and then both the TEC and the Church of England underwent a huge revival in the 19th century, reversing all those trends.

So I think we should listen carefully to suggestions for change, but not throw our liturgical and episcopal (bishops, priests) baby out with the bath water, as we have been through this type of crisis before.


Perhaps we also need to remember our Anglican traditions and the fact that they have lasted so long and not be in such a hurry to change into some watered down mega church. Evangelism is all well and good, but screechy-preachy has never been part of this tradition and should never be. Nor should we lose our hierarchy and further diminish the glorious language of our services in running after things that will cease and desist after a few years.

[Please sign your name when you comment Thanks. Editor]

Elizabeth Kaeton

George Clifford’s analysis, like any good ethecist, asks some very good questions which lead us to think and consider and dream a dream ourselves. Susan Snook’s analysis is even further from a vision or dream; rather, it is one that asks many pragmatic, important questions. I hate to sound stereotypically Anglican, but we really do need both – the pragmatic and the vision or dream.

The question is: How do we build a structure that will support the dreams we dream? It is not: How will we structure something that will allow us to dream?

First, we dream a dream of the church – as Bishop Wes has. Then, we ask what structure will support and hold and carry that dream forward.

PS – I am still shaking my head and wondering what that whole piece about ‘Sin’ was in the first TREC report. Really? Seriously? What was THAT all about?

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